Signs of trouble for new diplomas

Vocational qualifications are too 'complex' and 'lack coherence', say officials. Graeme Paton reports

England's exams watchdog has admitted that the new vocational qualifications, due to be launched in 2008, are running into trouble.

The new specialised diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds have been called revolutionary because they are drafted by employers. Professionals from across industry are refining the diplomas in 14 subjects, including engineering, hospitality, retail and construction.

But the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which is overseeing the project, is concerned about "complex" arrangements between organisations involved. Minutes for a QCA board meeting in May, published this week, say the biggest risk is lack of coherence and accountability between organisations.

The content of the diplomas is being drawn up by sector skills councils which are funded and supported by the Sector Skills Development Agency, a quango. Responsibility for an assessment programme for the diplomas then lies with the OCR exam board.

Sir Anthony Greener, QCA chairman, said talks should be held between the QCA and senior civil servants at the Department for Education and Skills to ensure new "timelines and milestones" are developed for the project.

It is not the first time the QCA has raised concerns. It wanted the 2008 launch to be put back to 2010 because there was not enough time to trial the diplomas, but was overruled by ministers. Later, the watchdog said it was on track.

But a source close to the QCA said: "The concern is that the sector skills councils are hugely variable. Some have completed their task, some have gone off on a tangent and at least four have done nothing. The process is just not working efficiently enough."

Critics have dubbed 2008 a "meltdown" year for education, with the launch of functional skills exams, a new statutory key stage 3 ICT test and the removal of coursework from many GCSEs planned. The QCA has been told to make budget cuts of 20 per cent, from pound;150 million to pound;120m by 2008. Its annual report, also released this week, show it has agreed to cut administrative costs to help meet the target: pound;9.2m has been made available to cover redundancies and other costs.

The organisation is on track to relocate to the South-east in 2008. The QCA said this week that a shortlist of six locations had been presented to the board. Elsewhere in the report, it was revealed that Ken Boston, QCA's chief executive, received pound;96,066 in benefits last year, including living expenses and international air travel. The Australian's overall package, including a salary of between pound;135,000 and pound;140,000, was up to pound;236,066.


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